SCHENECTADY -- Union College officials on Thursday promised to produce a new report focused on the college’s progress and shortcomings in improving diversity, equity and inclusion at the predominantly white college.
The report will be produced every other year and made publicly available on the college’s website, with the first edition planned to be published during the fall term.
The biennial report will aim to “evaluate Union’s history and vision for diversity, equity and inclusion” and include information on academic courses and requirements, recruitment and retention of employees, social and residential programs, recruitment and retention of students, campus climate survey and community engagement, according to a statement from the college.
“It’s a way for our community to hold us accountable for years to come,” Union President David Harris said Thursday night during a panel discussion on race the college hosted, indicating he planned to continue the kind of at-times-difficult conversations around race he has initiated more fully in the last week.
About 600 people joined the virtual forum, which featured Union students, faculty and administrators, who discussed issues of bias, diversity and other challenges the college plans to continue to work to address.
In comments submitted before the forum, students, faculty and members of the Union community reacted to recent examples of racial injustice and highlighted some issues facing Union. In some anonymous comments, students pointed to the “racial injustices that are occurring around us but also the one occurring right on Union’s campus.”
One of the comments pointed to Union’s relationship with Schenectady police, racial profiling on campus, the use of racial slurs by students, an instance of blackface at a fraternity last year and other issues.
“Union College this needs to stop but first Union has to take ownership for its previous failing and apologize to the black community on campus and in the Schenectady area,” the anonymous student wrote. “Union is a predominantly white institution and in order to move forward in a time like right now, the school has to come out about its past.”
Matt Milless, assistant dean for students and a longtime administrator at the college, said the fact that so many students felt they could only share their concerns anonymously was itself a sign of the work the college still has to do. He said the school needs to create more safe spaces for students to feel comfortable reporting incidents of bias, racism or micro-aggressions that make people feel uncomfortable or unsafe.
“I find I often don’t hear about things at all or in an appropriate amount of time, so are we creating safe enough spaces for people to come in and share their experiences,” said Milless, who participated on the panel. “The amount of anonymous [comments] is extremely telling about how uncomfortable these things are for people.”
Schenectady Police Chief Eric Clifford, a Union College alum, also joined the panel and was pressed to explain how the local police force was working to minimize bias and mistreatment of communities of color. He outlined a series of steps he has taken in the last three years to improve training, more closely evaluate use of force, review arrests and diversify the force.
But some of the Union officials pressed him to go further in diversifying the force and invited him to meet with students who feel they face problems with how the Schenectady police engage with Union students.
“This is perpetuating the problem, we have a white police force in a very diverse community,” Milless said.
The panelists spoke frankly about life as black men and women in America.
“I have always been very aware of my identity both as a woman and someone who is black,” said Fran’Cee Brown-McClure, Union’s vice president for student affairs and dean of students for the past year. “I’m also aware I’m raising a child, and it scares me every day to know I am raising a child in a world, where she is going to be judged first and foremost on the skin she did not have a choice to be born into.”
The panelists discussed whether they had even watched the video of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, a gruesome nine minutes showing Floyd call out, “I can’t breathe,” as a police knelt on his neck. Brown-McClure said she refused to watch the video: “I refused to watch lives being taken on television. … that was someone’s father.”
Milless and Harris, both black men, said their initial reactions to the video was to basically move on, not sure how this death caught on film was different than so many others.
Gretchel Hathaway, Union’s chief diversity officer, said she immediately texted her 35-year-old son to see that he was OK before watching the entire video.
“I wailed, I cried, I yelled at the television – the anger as a mother that this could happen to someone’s son, father, brother, cousin,” Hathaway said during the panel discussion. “The fact that he called out to his mother to me I wondered if she was calling him home.”
Richard Boakye, a senior mechanical engineering major at Union, said he prayed for the “birth of a new nation,” where people of all races can live without fear. He said the last two weeks have been “beyond imaginable” in revealing the pain of black people in this country. He said black people were literally fighting for their lives.
“I see these and it’s numbing and angering, but we have to always stay on alert, because it can be any of us or our friends,” Boakye said. “We are finishing the last two weeks of undergrad before stepping into the world, and we’ve had to fight to make sure we can even live in such a world.”
Harris noted that the country has made progress in the long scope of history – his presence serves as evidence – but questioned whether the current moment would result in lasting change.
“We do make progress,” Harris said. “I am the president of Union College; that wasn’t happening 40 years ago.”
Harris said he wondered if this current moment of attention on systemic racism would lead to lasting change or turn out to be the “Sandy Hook of racism,” a terrible tragedy that lays bare deep societal problems and sparks protest and outrage without resulting in fundamental change. A man killed a classroom full of kindergartners and that wasn’t enough to force changes to the nation’s gun laws, he said.
“It’s not about now, it’s about three, four, six months from now, a year from now, and have we forgotten and gone back to living our lives?” he asked.
Reach staff writer Zachary Matson at [email protected] or 518-417-9338